Everything went silent before the attack came.
No birds called in the trees. The wind didn’t blow. We scarcely dared to breathe. No one talked. We just took position and waited in that aching, terrifying silence.
Something twitched, moved in the foliage down below us, in the ravine. I swallowed hard, set my stance. I was at the heart of the forward line, J.T. within arm’s reach to my left and Matt to my right.
There was a flash of burning cold on my arm, almost enough to make me drop the staff in my hand. My stomach flopped over itself and I had to swallow again, forcing bile back down.
Steady, Marin. Steady. I sucked in a breath and looked over at Matt.
“Stand fast,” I whispered into the stillness and silence. “We can do this.”
The howl of a thousand voices echoed through the ravines. It shot shivers up and down my spine.
Then they came boiling up over the lip of the ravine toward us, an undulating mass of chest-high, gray-black figures with eyes that glowed like sickly witchlights.
Thirty meters until they hit the wards.
“Hold!” I bellowed, summoning up courage and voice I hadn’t known I had.
A few voices echoed my call. My heart began to beat a little faster.
“Wait for it.”
The shotguns we’d gotten loaded with Paul’s birdshot went off almost in unison. They took a devastating toll on the leading edge of the Greys’ line. Dozens dropped, shrieking in pain, a sound that set my teeth on edge. It didn’t stop their advance, though. It just slowed them down a little. They kept coming, running over their injured, their dead and dying, as inexorable as a storm surge.
“Reload, reload, reload!” I shouted as I braced for the wave.
Five meters to the ward lines.
They hit the lines and the world erupted into color and inhuman screams.
“Aim and fire, aim and fire!” I yelled, struggling to be heard over the sound. It was enough to make you want to drop everything and run in the opposite direction.
I looked up and down our battle line. It was holding.
So were the wards.
A hand fell on my shoulder. I startled, head snapping to the side.
Phelan’s fingers tightened briefly and he stepped past me, into the fifteen-meter gap between our line and the wards. His voice was a little ragged, but steadied after a moment.
“I know you’re behind this, Vammatar! Come out here and face me if you’ve got the stomach.” He stopped dead-center in the gap, planting his staff against his instep, squinting past the lightshow that was the wards-line.
The Greys pulled back, like a wave washing back into the ocean. Dozens lay strewn across the open ground between the wards and the edge of the ravines.
I put up a hand to signal the others to hold their fire. My heart was in my throat.
“Phelan,” J.T. hissed, “what are you doing?”
“Taking responsibility,” Phelan said firmly, not looking back. “It’s time I did that.”
“Do you have a death wish?” J.T. asked, voice strained.
I could just barely see the corner of Phelan’s mouth twitch upward in a smile. “Maybe. I hope not.”
The sea of gray-black parted and Vammatar strode through the gap, blood-red cloak billowing in the wind she created through her firm stride.
“Oh, Wandering One. I think you do. I really, really think you do.”
Tacking this on to the end as a treat for folks — I did a redesign of the Awakenings Book One cover in anticipation of releasing both the expanded edition and the paperback edition. I though y’all might like a peek.
A lot of symbolism going on in that cover! Might have to explain it in the FAQ. Speaking of, anyone who has questions for the FAQ, please post them here so I can add them into the manuscript before I’m done with edits.